Preaching to listeners who range from six to 96 can be a challenge. When I mention Archie Bunker or Mary Tyler Moore in a homily, I get blank stares from half the congregation.
And when Father Paul mentions Pokémon Go or Jabba the Hut he gets a blank stare… from me.
But there’s one figure in the entertainment world that almost everyone recognizes—Sherlock Holmes. Since he first appeared in print in 1887, the famous detective has appeared in 260 movies, 25 TV shows, a musical, a ballet, and 600 radio plays. [These numbers, and many other facts in my homily, come from David Gann’s fascinating article “Mysterious Circumstances” in The New Yorker magazine, reprinted in his book The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession.]
Less well-known is Sherlock’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a British doctor. I was reading about him this week and was quite surprised to find he was born a Catholic—both his parents were Catholic, and he received his education from Jesuit schools and colleges.
After medical school, however, he “renounced Catholicism, vowing, ‘Never will I accept anything which cannot be proved to me.’”
That seems a fairly rugged opinion and a pretty serious knock against our faith. But as I continued reading I was even more surprised to find that by the time he died Arthur Conan Doyle had become “the St. Paul of psychics.” Although he had denied the afterlife, he attended séances at which he “claimed to see not only dead family members but fairies as well.”
The ex-Catholic skeptic became living proof of the old saying ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’
I’m talking about this now because our readings at Mass today show the sharp contrast between God’s perfect truth and man’s limited reasoning. In the first reading, the Teacher sets the stage. He says that our labour—even when done wisely and well—can be in vain. It can make us anxious and sleepless, not producing the security we that hard work would give us.
In our second reading, St. Paul goes much further than the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, spelling out the problem: perfect wisdom is not found on earth but in heaven. As Christians, we’re living a new life and striving for a new goal—not contentment on earth, but glory in heaven. Logically enough, St. Paul explains, if we want to know the path to glory we need to set our minds on heavenly things rather than on the vanities of earthly life.
The Apostle spells this our even more clearly in the Letter to the Romans where he writes “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rm 12:2).
Putting the first and second readings together, we see clearly that Christians must think differently about every aspect of their lives, especially their work. The difference is found by seeking God and seeking to know his will and ways.
But it’s not only work and daily life that demands this effort. Temptations of every kind are another earthly reality that can sour all our hard work.
Resisting or overcoming sin takes a patient effort to see things God’s way. Sure, obeying the commandments is a start, but we want to do more. In St. Paul’s words to the Romans, we need to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rm 13:14). Resisting temptation must be our default setting, requiring that we think with Christ and like Christ. We shouldn’t confront temptations unprepared. In Ephesians 6:11, St. Paul say “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
That armour includes “the belt of truth.” We buckle that on by knowing what Scripture says about greed and sexual sin, and by making those teachings a big part of how we view the world and ourselves. No serious Catholic should need to look up Church teaching on these dangerous areas—we should be praying about them all the time, setting our minds “on things that are above,” on the spiritual realities that call us to holiness and happiness.
We not only put on the armour of God: we first strip off the old self and its sinful ways, putting on the new self, which means putting on Christ himself, as St. Paul says. That new self is a new nature renewed in knowledge according to the mind of Christ. In other words, the Christian is to be so identified with Christ that he actually thinks like Christ.
The Gospel today continues the contrast between worldly wisdom and the divine plan. There’s nothing in the parable that suggests the rich man was a terrible person. Maybe he shared some of his great wealth with others. But his perspective was dead wrong. He lived by the old Latin motto “Carpe diem” or “seize the day.”
Jesus tells us that there’s only one day that matters—what Scripture calls the day of the Lord. In his homily on the first Pentecost, St. Peter preaches about “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” before “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
That great and glorious day is the ultimate goal of all that we do—all our work, all our daily efforts to know and do what God desires.
How many of us have spent more time and worry planning our finances than we have deepening our knowledge of God through prayer and the study of Scripture? Today’s a good time to think about that question and to ponder the shortness of life.
As Sherlock Holmes would say, that’s elementary.